Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Poetry Story about Ducks

The first entry I wrote about the ducks was called "Two Ducks." It was sort of an inside joke between me and my creative writing students. One of the best ways I got students talking about "What makes poetry," was through an anecdote I'd heard.

A writer who had been in the Iowa Writer's Workshop told a group of us at a lunch table about the day one of the students, a wise guy, came into class ("workshop") with his poem. He handed out the photocopies for discussion. On the page was this text, which I would write on the board:

Two Ducks

two ducks

"Is this a poem?"
Some students would say, immediately, "no way." When I asked why not they'd insist you needed more to make a poem, something to make these ducks stand out and mean something. Something more descriptive, some simile or metaphor, or maybe action. A story or a more particular image. What did the poet want to say about the two ducks? Why should we care? We could talk then about emotion in poetry, our expectations, and about the tools of poetry: rhythm, repetition, figurative language.

Others would say, "It's a poem if the author says it is a poem. Maybe it means something to him or her." To which, invariably, someone would say: "It's just two words. Two plain words. You can't even say someone wrote that." Then we could talk about communication in a poem, audience, whether there were any rules or definitions, any limits.

The joke about the notoriously mean-spirited Iowa Writer's Workshop goes this way: "So he passed out the poem. And someone said, 'I don't like the first line,' and someone else said, 'I don't like the last line,' and someone else said, 'I don't like the title.' And we were done."

But my class doesn't go this way. I push my students farther-- can we make meaning of this? Are the title and line like reflections of two ducks on a pond, and so do we have sort of four ducks? Isn't the word "duck" kind of shaped like a duck, with a tall neck and forked tail? Do we all think the same thing when we see the words "two ducks" because we all have this shared image of what two ducks look like? Is it calling upon some primal, elemental experience we share-- of two ducks? Or, expecting more, does it dislocate us? Isn't "two" a strange word, not at all sounding how it's spelled? And yet ducks is so harsh and obvious. Is it a love poem? I am, of course, teaching them about "language poetry" here. For more on language poetry, click here.

And in the end I'm with the majority, in that I don't want as the reader to have to do all the work to make what is on the page mean something. I want the poet to tell me a little more than this. I want there to be a consciousness and author behind the poem who is willing to share something of the human experience with me. I prefer linearity, narrative, accessibility. But that's my preference. It doesn't mean it isn't a poem. And in some ways I, too, revisiting this poem again and again over the last twenty years, have come to see something in it, and something more in ducks as well, which I attribute to the poem.


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